For the past five years, Colombia's abysmal labor rights record has led congressional Democrats to freeze the proposed U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA). And for good reason: The agreement would, in part, benefit large-scale monocropping plantations and other economic projects -- many of whose owners utilize the "security" services of paramilitary groups to intimidate, assassinate, and displace not only trade unionists, but also Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders and families viewed as getting in the way of economic operations’ owners.
In April, President Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos defrosted the trade agreement, announcing a "Labor Action Plan" that details steps Colombia has committed to take in the coming months. Based on these promises, the TPA is likely to come up for a vote in the U.S. Congress before the end of 2011.
But the plan -- according to U.S. and Colombian trade unions, human rights groups, Afro-Colombians, indigenous Colombians, and rural farmer associations -- falls short. Far from guaranteeing fair and safe conditions for Colombian workers, the plan limits their ability to exercise their rights and ignores serious concerns about security, human rights, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous land rights.
In Colombia, being a trade unionist can be a death sentence. Colombia has the highest number of unionists killed in the world -- more than 1,000 during the last 10 years. Most workers are not unionized. A large number of workers are forced into "associative cooperatives" that then contract with employers; these not only impede unionization, but they also result in workers not having the labor protections that are afforded to direct employees. In the sugarcane industry in Valle del Cauca, where this model operates, Afro-Colombians work in slavery-like conditions.